More #AncientAliens Talk on Paranormal Review Radio with Me this Friday

I know everyone loved my talk at Illini about aliens, especially of the ancient sort, but unfortunately not everyone in the world could be there. But this Friday, Sept 26 at 10 pm EST, I will be on Paranormal Review Radio to talk about the subject and perhaps debunk the idea.

They have also produced a fun little promotional video.

I’m not totally sure what to expect, and I’ll be on my own as the skeptic. Jason Colavito was also asked to join, but he probably won’t be able to make it. Unfortunate, since he knows the material orders of magnitude better than I do. But at worst, I think this will be fun.

So, listen in or at least cheer me on.

My Upcoming Talk about Science, Religion, the Star of Bethlehem in Cologne (Köln)

Several months ago I was asked to participate on a conference about the Star of Bethlehem at the University of Groningen. But before I get there, I will be stopping in Cologne (Köln) in Germany to give a lecture for the Skeptics in the Pub group there. My lecture will be in English, if for no other reason than my German is nothing to listen to (one can say ein Bier, bitte only so many times). Besides the links above see the Post by The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View book page.

Hope you can come and check it all out! And if you are in Germany, Denmark, or the Netherlands (and maybe France) and have a skeptic/humanist/atheist/religious studies group, contact me ASAP if you want me to make a tour stop. I need to buy plane tickets really soon.

My Talk on Ancient Aliens and Modern UFOs is Now Up!

Good news, everyone! My talk for the Illini Secular Student Alliance at UIUC back in April is now up for everyone to see. In my presentation, I talk about the 20th century origins of the ancient astronaut hypothesis (now in its modern TV form, Ancient Aliens), the sorts of claims about the past and why they don’t hold up, and into the sorts of claims related to modern UFOs and alien visitations–that is, close encounters. I also get to bring up my research and book on the Star of Bethlehem.

You can watch the talk here (kindly recorded and edited by Illini SSA group members):

At the end I provided a bunch of links to useful websites, which I reproduce here:

If I made any significant mistakes, feel free to let me know. And of course, I don’t mind if you let others know about the presentation. 🙂

Review of #TheUniverse: Ancient Mysteries Solved(?) — The Star of Bethlehem

A few weeks ago on the History Channel’s sister station, H2, the astronomy-based series The Universe went on a quest to solve an ancient mystery. Previous episodes in the previous few weeks had covered the construction and purpose of the pyramids (which was pretty good), Stonehenge, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The first two certainly have an astronomical connection, such as the solstice alignment of Stonehenge, but explaining Sodom’s ruin via astronomical body begs the very serious question: was this simply a theological story or etiological myth? Apparently that skepticism couldn’t find its way to the heart of the show.

Perhaps then it is no wonder that the same appears in this recent episode on the Star of Bethlehem. Already Jason Colavito has put up a good review of the episode, as well as previous ones of the same series. Before reading my review, you will likely enjoy his. But there are some details I caught, and they further wish they had called upon someone who, I don’t know, wrote a well-researched book on it. 🙂 Now to get into this episode.

Continue reading

Appearing in Illinois to talk about Physics and Aliens

Next week I will be in Illinois to give a couple of talks quite unrelated to each other.

First, on Wednesday of next week (April 23rd), I will be giving a presentation related to my physics education research at Illinois State University. I will focus on the origins of physical intuitions, such as why students continually believe that motion requires an active force contra Newton’s first law. There will be some nice history of science along with my own data collection that went into my thesis. Hopefully I can get this published in the not too distant future. I don’t think this talk will be open to the public and if mostly geared for undergrad physics students.

My other talk is the next day at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the student group, the Illini Secular Student Alliance. This will be about aliens/ETs and if they have been visiting us. This will be similar to a talk I gave to my local SSA group a few years ago (video here), but I have updated several things and go much more into the modern UFO phenomenon. The focus will still be largely on the “ancient astronaut theory” and there will be much-deserved reference to the efforts of Jason Colavito, Michael Heiser, and Robert Sheaffer. You can also see some of the things I have previously written about with respect to this subject here. The talk is more open and it should be recorded; once the video goes up I will post that.

Later this year I am slated to give another talk here in Columbus, and I still have the Star of Bethlehem Conference in the Netherlands in October. So, I will get to provide lots of jibber-jabber. If you want more, feel free to ask. 🙂

On the Trouble with Bruno and #Cosmos

Since its debut on Sunday before last, the new Cosmos series has garnered a lot of attention. It has been fun to some degree seeing those that are in denial of many of our more astounding scientific truths try to combat what is shown by Cosmos-host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. A FOX station in Oklahoma, for example, accidentally cut out about 15 seconds of the first episode that spoke of early human ancestors. An accident that is too easy to interpret. Clearer are the responses from folks at Answers in Genesis, who have to hate on the whole of cosmology, geology, and biology.

However, perhaps what has gotten the most flack from creationists and pro-science folks is the representation of the execution of Giordano Bruno for heresy in 1600. In particular, over at the NCSE blog, Peter Hess and Josh Rosenau claimed that the show was promoting the false narrative of the history of science and religion as always or primarily adversarial, how Bruno wasn’t really a scientist, that his cosmological views didn’t really cause him to get burned, and that a more nuanced approach is necessary, among other complaints. Rosenau also links and quotes from other sources that similarly claim how Cosmos screwed up the history of science.

Some of those criticisms are valid and worth mentioning. However, the primary attack on Cosmos‘s accuracy is demonstrably false, that the episode was claiming that Bruno was killed primarily for promoting the Copernican model and that science and religion are at odds. The false narrative that many are attacking is itself a false narrative. Continue reading

Astrology News on the Radio in Canada with Me

Yesterday while I was working on things, my phone went off, saying I had a call from Alberta. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve received any calls from Canada on my phone, so it was surprising. But more importantly it wasn’t a crank call; rather, it was a radio station in Calgary that was going to be talking about a new study on how many people in the US think astrology is legit science. You can look at this study here.

It is part of a larger science literacy study by the National Science Foundation, and they ask about astrology as a benchmark for the acceptance of pseudo-scientific beliefs. Why astrology? In part because it is very much bunk, and numerous studies show that astrologers cannot predict personal characteristics better than chance, and the agreement between astrologers, even using the same astrological methods, agree little more than at the level of chance. (I discuss this a bit in my book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View). In part also because the idea of astrology is nearly omnipresent; a horoscope is found in just about every major newspaper, it’s on the front pages of other news sites, and it has a fair bit of popular press because of celebrity endorsement, such as pop singer Katy Perry. So belief in astrology as scientific or a useful practice can be a good barometer for non-scientific belief acceptance.

The recent study shows that still a small majority of Americans think that astrology is “not at all scientific”, but it is at a recent low. Over at Mother Jones, Chris Mooney provides these graphs for how rejection of astrology has changed over the years and how acceptance of astrology appears among different age demographics.

The thing to note is that astrology has a far greater acceptance among millennials verses other age demographics.

So, what is going on here?

Back to that phone call, I was invited onto 770 AM CHQR for a chat with hosts Angela Kokott and Dave Taylor about this new finding, why people buy into astrology, and why it seems to be growing. You can listen to the whole show by going to this website and picking the date of Feb 13 and at 3 PM to listen to the right show. I get on the air about 11.5 minutes in, give or take. The audio file will not be up for long, so go get it now!

To explain the growth, especially among young people, I said that it may partially be explained by the changing religious demographics. Millennials are more willing to reject traditional forms of religion, and branches of evangelical Christianity usually have only bad things to say about astrology, keeping their flocks away from it. Another factor, that I didn’t mention on the air, was that there has been recent economic and political stress, and such things often cause people to look for answers in domains that are outside what is mainstream or accepted by the elites (i.e., scientists). Compare the data from the late 1970s/early 1980s. The US had gone through the terrible Vietnam War, the Nixon resignation, stagflation, and failures of foreign policy under Carter in both Iran and Afghanistan. No wonder it was boom times for pseudo-science in that period, not to mention the counter culture movement that grew up in the 1960s. So, with the current issues of the sluggish economy after a world-wide banking debacle, the bailout of the super-rich, the continuing flat wages of most workers who can even get work, and a gridlock federal government, it isn’t looking like the elites of the country can do anything right. That makes things rife for pseudo-scientific ideas to gain a foothold.

This is also frightening because the decline in belief in astrology through the 1980s and 1990s was in part because of the organizing of skeptical groups to show it doesn’t work. In Nature, there was a paper published showing astrology didn’t work, and other well-designed studies showed similar results. The group CSICOP (now CSI) was getting well-organized after earlier issues dealing with astrology. But now a lot of that progress seems to have been reversed. This certainly will require a lot of work on the part of skeptic groups, but it won’t be easy considering that there is usually not the best amount of communication between believers in astrology and its detractors.

It’s not something that needs more study. Astrology has been shown by dozens of well-designed studies to not work better than what is expected by chance. Moreover, the apparent successes of horoscope “predictions” can be seen as either using statements that fit anyone (called Barnum statements, see the Forer Effect), or there is the use of cold reading, where the participant is asked by the astrologer vague or leading questions for the participant to place their answer in such a way as it appears that the astrologer knew the answer from the horoscope. And let’s not forget that for astrology to work you have to break the fundamental laws of physics, a non-trivial issue. But for someone that really believes, that won’t change things. Just like with creationists, it isn’t the evidence for astrology that attracts people but some other need it apparently fulfills, such as telling you something about yourself or your purpose. I recommended some ways of talking to people to get them to reason out of astrology before, but I may need to do something more in depth to really make it work. And it looks like of people my age and younger, they need to hear it.

(Also note: one of the authors of the study is John Besley of Michigan State University, my alma mater. Go Green!)

Thoughts on the Nye/Ham Creationism/Evolution Debate

The end is Nye!

Sorry, made that joke last time, but now it seems better suited.

So last night was the much-trafficked debate between Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and AiG founder Ken Ham. Now, I am obviously biased towards the scientific consensus; evidence tends to do that. However, I have to say that I was pessimistic about how the debate would go. I didn’t figure either side would really win, but rather it seemed there would be a lot of talking past each other. And while that happened to an extend, overall I think Nye handled things rather well.

To be less biased, check out this poll from Christianity Today, hardly a secularist haven. There, it says Bill one the debate; with nearly 25,000 votes, Bill has 92% of the vote in his favor. And this was even before was posted at Pharyngula, which likes to crash polls like this to show they are not scientific. The bias should have been expected in the opposite direction that what it is, so it seems among at least the tech savvy, Nye was perceived to be the winner.

Perhaps that was in part because Nye did well to present a slurry of observations that were inconsistent with a young earth or having a wooden boat carry itself and all animal “kinds”, while Ham did not present anything that was really evidence for earth’s lack of antiquity or why evolution doesn’t work. There was a bit about radiometric dating (I’ll get to that later), but his presentation was more focused on what he perceives to be the nature of science and how creationism is important to his world view. But perhaps the point that stands as the biggest highlight is the question from the Q&A session when Ham was asked what would convince him that he was wrong. Answer: a long pause, and basically saying he’s a Christian, so that’s that. Nye, on the other hand, clearly and concisely named several things that would be evidence against his views on evolution and geology. That must have been the most stark contrast between how these two people operate and understand things, and I’m not seeing people saying that that was a good talking point for Ham. For the record, I watched the debate at a meeting with Christians and non-believers, and while some were willing to find a better way to understanding Ham’s pause and final answer (suggesting he was at least thoughtful), it was still fairly obvious that it was antithetical to science and even good theology (and I agree).

If you want the blow-by-blow, here is one good synopsis for each part of the debate. PZ Myers also live-blogged the event. NBC’s Alan Boyle summarizes the event rather well. And you can watch the debate here if you are tempted.

Noteworthy: as of posting over 700,000 people watched this particular stream. Overall, at least a million people watched.

So, how about the arguments themselves? Now, Bill obviously focused on the science and facts that show there world to have greater antiquity that a mere 6000 years, but he did touch on something that I proposed to be the ideal method for this sort of debate: make a theological point to undermine the fundamentalist position. Nye did this in two ways: showing how millions, if not billions, of people have religious beliefs and accept evolution; and how the YEC position has to rely on the interpretation of texts and thus the interpreter’s own authority. Now, if Bill had a stronger background in the Bible and theology he could have expanded on this. It would also have helped to have Bill avoid making statements about how the Bible came about via the telephone game; it’s neither an accurate model nor something that his fundamentalist audience would appreciate. There are certainly translations issues, but we do have the books of the Bible in their original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), so we aren’t divorced so completely from the original text. However, knowing how ancient literature needs to be contextualized would be helpful. Considering there are several creation accounts and flood legends in the Ancient Near East, all written centuries or millennia before Genesis, that should affect how one reads the book and see that there is the use of a common literary trope, not a history report. If Nye could have done more to hold the feet of fundamentalist readings of the Bible to the fire, that would have made his case even stronger to his prospective crowd he wanted to convince.

On the other hand, there was Ham’s scientific case… Ham argued that creationism made predictions just like real science does, but his examples are both historically inauthentic and otherwise really what’s predicted by evolution and thus not in favor of creationism. For example, Ham says that the Bible tells us that all humans are of the same kind and thus there is one race. Well, evolution says all humans have a common ancestor, so that’s not really different. Ham also says how evolution is racist, as if racism didn’t exist before 1859; rather, there has been plenty of religiously-inspired racist attitude before and after. The “Curse of Ham” (not Ken, thought that is a pox on us all) was used to justify all sorts of terrible view related to racism and slavery, and it was based on biblical interpretation and bigoted attitudes. Moreover, followers of the Bible in the past were not that great and figuring out what to do with the Native Americans. There was a theological debate whether they were a separate creation from Adam and his descendants. Seems like the creation account with its global flood and thousands of years couldn’t account for two continents of people. This was “resolved” for some by claiming the American Indians were really Jews from the lost tribes, a main staple of Mormonism for example. Jason Colavito talks about this in a recent blog post.

The point here is that Ham’s model does not produce predictions like evolution does, and what he does claim to be predictions are already accounted for by evolution and in detail.

When Ham talks about radiometric dating (and he had prepared to talk about that with slides even before Nye took the stage it seems, and Nye hardly talked about this dating method in his 30-minute talk), he shows how incompetent or perhaps dishonest his cronies are. To counter the utility of radiometric dating methods, Ham talks about a layer of basalt laid in the ground by a lava flow. That lava flow went over some old tree stumps. The basalt had a date of millions of years using uranium or argon-based, but the tree, presumably at least as old if not older than the basalt, gave an age of around 45,000 years using Carbon-14 dating methods. Here is the problem: those trees had no carbon in them to date! How can I know that? Because the trees had to have been petrified. If it was still wood, it would have burned up when there was that lava flow. Moreover, the image Ham provided showed what looked like petrified wood to me. And if something is petrified, all of the organic materials are replaced by minerals and is thus mostly silicates. That is, all of the carbon has been pushed out of the tree, so there is no carbon 12 or carbon 14 to check for. At all. So no wonder they got a date of close to 50,000 years, the upper limit to what age C-14 dating can give answers; it’s been pegged at that range because of no signal. But the thing is, this data was given to Ham by Andrew Snelling, who has a PhD in geology. He must have known the trees were petrified and had no carbon in them. To date them using a method that cannot work no matter what date the trees were (again, because there was not fraking carbon in them) is either the height of incompetence or he was dishonest and had to get results to promote creationism even if they were based on a lie.

Bill unfortunately didn’t make this realization and gave an answer that wasn’t geologically feasible, and Ham also pointed out the trees were encased in the basalt, making Nye’s explanation more untenable. But it’s all based on either arrogant ignorance or right-out deception (though not necessarily by Ham, since he’s not a geologist).

But to focus on the debate, both sides were civil and professional. Since in science the debate looks like this:

the way it off Ham didn’t look like that. And he certainly didn’t give off the used care salesmen vibe that Kent Hovind did (before he went to jail for tax fraud). That is in some ways a victory for the creationist cause: it didn’t look stone age. Of course, Bill was able to make many good points to show that it was at least backward-thinking, and the question of what would change minds will perhaps be the biggest take-away rather than the number of ice core rings in Greenland. Often I think Bill gave this expression that is summarized by this new meme:

That may be a good summary right there.

So, I won’t claim Nye “won” the debate. As Joel Watts notes, each side sees their side as the one with the facts and on the side of right. However, Bill had the ability to call upon a great diversity of scientific knowledge and background, which he usually explained well (though not so well when it came to explaining sex and fish), and he made points about what we would have to have seen if we had such rapid speciation as Ham’s model claims to have. He prepared well. Ham, however, had little on that (and he even made it worse by claiming there were even fewer “kinds” on the Ark and thus making speciation problems greater by an order of magnitude), and instead he basically said that he was a presuppositionalist, starting from the Bible (that he magically knows how to interpret, including the parts that aren’t literal, like how God needs to rest, etc.).

And on the other hand, Nye’s main line of argument was that creationism undermines science education and makes the US a less competitive economic power. Nye reiterated that several times, but I think Ham’s video anecdotes from scientists who are creationists undermined that fairly strongly in some people’s eyes. Nye could have undermined that testimony by saying how none of them have used their creationist views to do their science, while geologists, physicists, astronomers, biologists, etc. all use their contra-creationist views to do good, published science. And Bill could have said how the historical sciences actually have helped us in our technology. For example, observations from astronomy are historical and they confirm general relativity; without GR, you can’t have a working GPS system. Evolutionary algorithms are used all the time for designing things, showing that the underlying idea behind Darwin’s theory has real-world application; how a creationist could say it works well in designing cars and autonomous robots but not bird wings can only be done through special pleading. Oh, and let’s not forget about vaccines for viruses that have to change to jump from farm animals or birds to humans; you can only understand that with genetics, mutations, and natural selection. But none of these points were made, and anecdotes are a powerful form of evidence to a person’s mind, even if they aren’t powerful in any statistical sense. While Nye was forceful on the need for students to learn the best science and thus exclude creationism from the science classroom, his case did receive a torpedo he would have deflected.

But Nye did do well in undermining Ham’s distinction between observational and historical science, noting how this isn’t what happens in the real world. No one saw the murder, but CSI makes a lock-solid case using circumstantial evidence all the time. Ham didn’t have any good response to this and could only repeat himself. The only way I can tease out something useful in Ham’s distinction is that he is differentiating between fact-gathering science and theoretical science. The past is given a hypothesis to explain the facts we now have, but that would all be applicable for current events. I don’t observe gravity, only its well-measured, highly-predictive effects. The ball falls from my hand with an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s is the observation; gravity is the explanation. Similarly, the ratio of elements in a rock is such-and-such; the explanation is years of radioactive decay. You could claim that balls are pushed down by angels or Satan took out the argon in rocks to make them look older, but that is the far less conducive hypothesis. But the sorts of gathering facts and making explanations is done the same for current events as well as past ones; there is no distinction then between historical and observational science, except in so far as the evidence for things happening now are usually more certain and precisely measured.

Now, the last question: was it worth having this debate? I was skeptical before about this particular format, largely because this was set up in such a way to be a major cash cow from the struggling Creation Museum and their Ark Project. I am less certain of that now because, according to the reports I linked to above, the cost of the debate was much more than the ticket sales, at least by a factor of two. For all we know, Bill’s speaking fee was the price of all the tickets put together. As for publicity, creationism is already well-known and believed in the US, so I don’t think this really created much new exposure; the market is pretty much saturated, and there has been almost no movement in the numbers of who is a YEC in decades, so people knowing about this debate isn’t really going to help the YEC cause. But because Nye presented things well, it may have exposed many believers to some good science for once, and this to a group that has to be insular to the scientific and academic world. Penetrating that bubble is necessary, and I think Nye did that. So overall, I think this was a debate worth having and ultimately favored Team Science.

It wasn’t perfect, but Nye pretty much achieved his goals. Kudos.

The Exposing Pseudoastronomy Podcast takes on the Star of Bethlehem … with Me!

As part of the continuing efforts to get the message out about the Star of Bethlehem and the failure to explain it with astronomy, I was interviewed on the Exposing Pseudoastronomy podcast, run by Stuart Robbins, an young planetary scientist and skeptic. In the past, the podcast has tackled lots of material from Coast to Coast AM and some of their top guests, such as Richard Hoagland, in great but comfortable detail. That should be enough reason to subscribe to this skeptical outlet.

If you want to hear the podcast with me, you can go to the blog page, find the show notes, or listen right here .

Quick notes: my voice wasn’t in the best of conditions, apparently due to some acid coming up in the night to burn my vocal chords. And I made a small gaff in a place or two. For example, I talked about commentary on the Star by “Saint Augustus.” While Augustus is important to Christian history, he’s not a saint, let alone with the standing of Satin Augustine. But otherwise, this came out really well.

The Star of Bethlehem in the News

It’s been a while since I have posted, but I have been super-busy with getting my PhD and other research-related activities. But there has been some great news when it comes to my work on The Star of Bethlehem. Over on Amazon, the reviews have been very positive, with one exception–though that person has proven to not be a charitable reader to put it nicely.

Another review went up today over at Astro Guyz. It is very positive and it is done in the light of the book by Michael Molnar on the same subject. Great to see others comparing the two and thinking I had the better argument. Speaking of arguments, a post went up over at Debunking Christianity that included my book as something worth buying for the holidays, and the comments have led to some interesting engagements. Yes, there is a comment section I think worth reading. It’s a Christmas miracles?

The biggest news for today is that an article has been published in the Columbus Dispatch, on of Ohio’s biggest newspapers. It includes a picture of me as well as bits from an interview I did with the reporter, JoAnne Viviano, a few weeks ago.


You can see my ugly mug here. It’s right next to the computer.

There has been a lot of twitter traffic for this article, and I won’t mind if it brings me more attention. Repeating bits of the post, Doubtful News also talks about the subject and promotes my book. Thank you for that, Sharon Hill.

Also coming soon, the podcast Exposing Pseudoastronomy should be putting out an interview with me (probably tomorrow). That went well, except my voice was going bad since I burned my vocal chords a couple of days before. And I am planning another interview very soon about the same subject.

So, lots of things happening about this story. Stay tuned for more as it happens on my Facebook page for the book.